Researchers have developed a DNA film that absorbs ultraviolet light more efficiently the longer it is exposed to it. This extra layer could be applied over the skin instead of sunscreen, potentially protecting it from the negative effects of sunburn, developers explain.

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Could an artificial DNA film eventually replace sunscreen?

Every summer, we are bombarded with offers for the latest and best products to bring with us to our sun-kissed holiday destinations. From sunglasses to sunscreen and after-sun body lotions, drugstores display a wealth of eye and skincare products.

In the future, however, we may have other options to protect ourselves from the negative effect of the summer sun.

Ultraviolet (UV) rays are emitted by the sun and they are the reason why we get tanned in the summer. They are also emitted by tanning beds. But UV rays are also very harmful to the skin, and they are a major risk factor for skin cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to UV rays can start causing harm to the skin within 15 minutes in the absence of protective layers and sunscreen.

Dr. Guy German, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and colleagues have designed a film layer made out of DNA capable of absorbing UV light and thus effectively protecting the wearer's skin.

The researchers published their study results in the journal Scientific Reports.

Using DNA as a 'sacrificial layer'

As previous research has shown, UV radiation causes significant damage to the DNA, which can result in cancer and the premature aging of the skin, causing wrinkles and spots.

Dr. German and his colleagues decided to use this knowledge to develop a DNA layer that would take the sun damage instead of the wearer's skin.

"We thought, let's flip it. What happens instead if we actually used DNA as a sacrificial layer? So instead of damaging DNA within the skin, we damage a layer on top of the skin," says Dr. German.

The DNA films were created by drying DNA from a water-like solution. Once dry, the films resembled a net of crystals under the microscope. This "coating" is thin and visually transparent.

When exposed to UV light from a UV lamp, the DNA films demonstrated a high absorption capacity that increased with the length of exposure.

In other words, the longer the DNA layer was irradiated with UV light, the more absorbent it became.

"If you translate that, it means to me that if you use this as a topical cream or sunscreen, the longer that you stay out on the beach, the better it gets at being a sunscreen," explains Dr. German.

Another significant finding was that the films of DNA were hygroscopic, meaning that they were capable of absorbing and retaining moisture. The implications here are that, when the artificial DNA layer is applied to human skin, it will allow it to remain hydrated for longer.

Wider implications for healthcare?

Future research, Dr. German says, should investigate whether or not these DNA films could have more far-reaching uses and serve other protective purposes.

Could they be used as a transparent wound dressing, allowing doctors and patients to observe the healing process without removing this stratum?

This is something that the researchers want to look into, stating that, if effective as a wound cover, the DNA film would also be able to protect the injury from sun exposure, as well as allow for the maintenance of a humid environment, which is favourable to faster healing.

"Not only do we think this might have applications for sunscreen and moisturizers directly, but if it's optically transparent and prevents tissue damage from the sun and it's good at keeping the skin hydrated, we think this might be potentially exploitable as a wound covering for extreme environments."

Dr. Guy German